In May, Japan apologized for the Bataan Death March—the torturous trek that killed 2,500 men in 1942. Ever since, the survivors have been debating whether to accept it.
On a warm Saturday in late May, Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan's Ambassador to the United States, found himself at a lectern in a large banquet room at the Omni hotel in San Antonio, Texas facing a group of aging American Army and Air Corps veterans. Sixty-seven years earlier, these same veterans had been beaten, starved, imprisoned and enslaved by the ambassador's political forbearers, the right-wing militarists who waged a savage war of savage intent that, by some estimates, cost the lives of 25 million people in Asia.
"We extend a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people," Fujisaki began, "including prisoners of war."
The ambassador's apology set off something of a contretemps among the aging veterans and their families, a debate that filled the summer and is spilling into the fall, raising a question rarely asked after a war: What is the responsibility of the defeated?
To many of those white-haired and mottled men, the ambassador's six-minute apology and the invitation to visit Japan were insults.
Across the years, various representatives of the Japanese government, including a prime minister or two, have issued similar apologies, but this was different. For the first time since the massive bloodletting of World War II, a member of the government of Japan stood face to face with men his country had tortured—and the relatives of men it had murdered—unarmed prisoners of war all, looked them both literally and figuratively in the eye, and said he was sorry.
None of the accounts of Fujisaki's apology mentioned that the particular group of men assembled before him had been part of the first major land battle for America in World War II, the 1942 fight for the tiny peninsula of Bataan in the Philippines Islands, a last stand that ended in the surrender of 76,000 men under American command--the worst defeat in American military history.
The day after that battle, the Japanese rounded up their captives and started marching them north under a tropical sun 66 miles to a railhead to prison camp. The men were sick and starved; they'd been fighting for 99 days on less than half rations and were suffering from malaria, beriberi, and dengue fever. Whenever they dropped out of the line of march and fell to their knees, their Japanese guards would shoot them, beat them, bayonet them, decapitate them, bury them alive, run them down like dogs in the road. Some 2,500 American and Filipino POWs died on that infamous trek, the Bataan Death March. In the years of imprisonment that followed, the American POWs were made to live on rice and weeds, were worked to death on brutal labor details, were transported to Japan in the suffocating holds of vessels they came to call "hell ships," and then were enslaved in Japanese mines and factories and shipyards. Some 25,000 Americans in the Philippines went into captivity in 1942. Three years later, more than 40 percent were dead.
For all this—the deaths, the suffering, the torture, the enslavement—Ichiro Fujisaki, plenipotentiary, offered his "deepest condolences", and later the Japanese government invited the survivors, the some 70 octogenarians and nonagenarians who are the last men standing from Bataan, to visit Japan in the spring of 2010 to, as the Yomiuri Shimbun put it, "promote understanding of this country among them."
To many of those white-haired and mottled men, the ambassador's six-minute apology and the invitation to visit Japan were insults. Fujisaki's regret sounded genuine enough, but some men wondered how anyone could apologize for an atrocity.
No locution, they said, no matter how well framed or sincerely delivered, could act as an emollient for the memory of being starved and bludgeoned for three years. No expression of regret could stop the nightmares of skeletal comrades lying half dead in their own filth or a buddy on his knees begging for his life just before a Japanese guard dispatched him.
Their enmity, of course, is easy to understand. I listened to it for 10 years, researching their history for my book, Tears in Darkness. Some men simply don't want to hear an apology. "I don't give a damn what any of them say," a former POW doctor once told me. "I still hate the bastards." Others insist on an "official" apology, a resolution of regret voted by the Japanese Diet; without that imprimatur, they say, any apology, even one as earnest as Fujisaki's, is empty. A third group wants atonement in the form of hard cash, either official war reparations or "compensation"—$20,000 is the figure most mentioned—from the Japanese war-time firms that enslaved them. Ralph Levenberg, a death-march survivor who now lives in Reno, Nevada, explains:
"Money doesn't really take the pain away, doesn't wipe out the hurt and nightmares. You can't 'buy' that away, but some guys feel $20,000 would be a nice apology. The payment is symbolic. Besides, everyone would like to have a pot of money."
Not Ben Steele of Billings Montana. He was with his comrade Ralph Levenberg in San Antonio, and he too found the amiable ambassador's entreaties "shallow" after all these years, "a little late" for a group of men who know their surcease is at hand. ("Hell," he says, wryly, "we're all almost dead, you know. We're walking on thin ice. What good does an apology do now?") But there's a difference between Ben Steele and many of his aging comrades.
As a former prisoner of war, he doesn't like he’s sui generis, different from the other men and women who fought in World War II. Yes, being a former POW confers on him the full status of a causality (he had beriberi and malaria so bad, he was given the last rites three times in one prison camp). But he is quick to point out that there were close to 680,000 other American casualties (wounded) in World War II.
"Getting captured," he says, "was simply part of my military experience. There's all kind of hazards in war. A bullet in the head or something. You never know. When you're in the military, you're subject to being harmed. You're sticking your neck out."
So he doesn't want special compensation or reparations. POWs, he says, are already given special treatment by the Veterans Administration and most collect full disability, close to $3,000 tax-free dollars a month.
Such equanimity in the wake of so much injury is unusual. In part this sang-froid is a product of who Ben Steele is, a former cowboy turned art professor, a man with a remarkably even disposition who greets everyone with a good word and a smile. But his lack of animus also comes from his post-war experience, one day in particular.
He started teaching college in 1959 and on the first day of school he found a Japanese student sitting in his classroom, a boy named Harry Koyama. When Ben Steele saw those almond-shaped eyes, his heart instantly filled with hate.
“This is awful,” he thought. “What am I going to do?” After class he went back to his small office to think. Okay, he told himself, the war is over. He wasn’t a prisoner anymore and this wasn’t Japan. It was America, and “this kid’s an American, too. I have to treat him like everybody else.”
Everything seemed fine until the boy discovered that his professor had been a former prisoner of the Japanese. Ben Steele could feel his student pulling away, and that troubled the teacher in him, so he sat the young man down for a talk. By the end of the semester, Harry Koyama was among the best in the class. And Ben Steele was beginning to wonder what had happened to all that hate he’d brought home.
That is why now, 92-year-old Ben Steele, unlike many of his surviving comrades, wants the Japanese Foreign Ministry to know that if his aging legs can get him to the front door of the Billings Logan International Airport this spring, he plans to get on a flight to Tokyo, where he'd be delighted to sit on a tatami mat and talk about peace and reconciliation. He does not require an apology, but a Kobe steak and cold Sapporo would be much appreciated.
Michael Norman, is the co-author, with Elizabeth M. Norman, of recently published Tears In the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2009), a book that features Ben Steele and his war art. Michael, a former combat Marine from Vietnam, is an Associate Professor in the Literary Reportage program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.